James Lawton: Benitez forgets the values that made Reds great
His claim that Champions League elimination should be put in perspective disrespects the rich heritage Shankly established
Thursday 26 November 2009
Liverpool's requirements as they face up to separation from the business end of a Champions League illuminated once more by the regained touch of Barcelona make a list that has grown dismayingly long.
However, there is no question about the No 1 need.
It is for a reality check in every corner of Anfield, starting in the offices of manager Rafa Benitez and chief executive Christian Purslow – and wherever the American owners are currently begging for the club's latest line of credit.
Both Benitez and Purslow appear to be in deep denial as the rest of football absorbs the astonishing fact that the Liverpool decline has been so steep since last season's encouraging rush to the heels of Manchester United in the Premier League that their European campaign brought them one less goal than the tournament's weakest team, the Hungarian lightweights Debrecen who were beaten laboriously 1-0 in Budapest.
Benitez talked of a passing inconvenience, a setback which fans just need to put into a little perspective, saying, "It is worth remembering a lot of clubs don't make it into this competition. Because we have qualified for five years in a row, people think it's easy but it is not."
No, they don't think it's easy, Rafa, they think it tough and demanding. But if they happen to support Liverpool, or any club with a mighty tradition and huge following, they also think it is pretty much par for a well- travelled course.
This week they might also have reflected that if a manager is guaranteed the financial security of £20m if he should be fired, not one slight part of his job is to deliver a lecture against "the complacency" of fans who have been brought up to expect, if not crowning triumphs each season, at least the reassurance that their expensive team remains in the competitive mix at the very highest level – and is showing the odd hint of progress.
For the moment Benitez's bugle call for redoubled faith before Sunday's derby against an Everton who have cost only a fraction of his own team could scarcely sound thinner. Nor, talking of complacency, could Purslow have struck a more fanciful note if he had borrowed his script from Walt Disney. "Tonight, I'm delighted really in the positive signs. We should have won by a lot more. We've got players coming back from injury and it's really important the fans understand that we've got some heroes out there."
He assured Benitez of his future, pointing out that the manager was just four months into a five-year contract and that, "You don't deviate from long-term plans for people and the way to take the club forward to the next level because of two late goals against Lyons, and that is what it boils down to."
Unfortunately, it boils down to rather more than that. What has been rendered is increasingly oppressive evidence that after the improbable brilliance of his arrival at Anfield, Benitez has failed to develop a team of consistent, challenging standards. Take away the no-brainer signings of Fernando Torres and Javier Mascherano, the best defensive midfielder in the 2006 World Cup, the reliable goalkeeping of Pepe Reina and there is little or no accumulating evidence of a team on the move.
It is a team that can shine with individual stardust but is essentially shot through with mediocrity.
So when Purslow and Benitez say pull up a plate and tuck into the Europa League, and the former predicts a 50,000 legion marching to the final of that second-rate tournament – always assuming that Liverpool can muster a little more cutting edge than was displayed against the Hungarian non-qualifiers in Budapest – there can be only one reaction. It is that the men in the key positions are suffering from a bad case of amnesia. They seem to have forgotten quite who they represent.
It is not the loaded upstarts Manchester City, the upwardly mobile Aston Villa and Tottenham, the over-achieving Sunderland and Stoke City, it is Liverpool, the most successful team in English football history, the winner of five European Cups, and they are addressing a crowd who once inspired Bill Shankly to take out of his pocket a red handkerchief, wave it from the balcony of Liverpool City Hall and tell them, "You make me feel as strong as Chairman Mao."
What is missing now in the management of the club, if not in such downcast superstars as Steven Gerrard and Torres, is an understanding of the duty that if you are Liverpool you are indeed required to operate on a higher level than most of your opponents. It is not unfair, it is not too demanding, it is simply the terrain you occupy.
This is why, on a night when Barça reminded us of what it is to operate truly at the top of the game, to play winning football that is both coherent and beautiful, the noises made by those charged with guiding Liverpool were so painfully inappropriate.
What was needed more than anything was the acceptance that the club are continuing to slide away from the standards of performance which Benitez promised on that glorious dawn in Istanbul when he said he would build his own team of irresistible strength.
It has not happened in the time since then and there is no current evidence that it might in the next four and a half years. In such circumstances big-time clubs tend not to talk of long-term plans. They live in the present and if something is plainly broken they attempt to fix it.
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